This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Western Pleasure for the Standardbred

Western Pleasure for the Standardbred

Even the most ardent Standardbred devotee has to admit that the breed isn't the first to come to mind as a western pleasure candidate.  Certainly, the Standardbred is a solid choice for pleasure riding on the trails, but show pen western pleasure, largely the domain of slow-moving Quarter horses mincing around the ring with low heads and loose reins, seems a little far-fetched for a breed developed to fly down the racetrack, pulling on the lines at the trot or pace while hitched to a sulky.

But two of the breed's greatest attributes, willingness and a good work ethic, coupled with a good measure of patience and perseverance, make the Standardbred a surprise contender in the western show pen.

Start With a Good Foundation

Before you venture into any specialized riding discipline, whether dressage, jumping, or western pleasure, your Standardbred needs a solid foundation under saddle.  Your Standardbred should be comfortable carrying a saddle and a rider, and should have a working knowledge of basic aids and commands.  The horse should know the basics of steering, speeding up, slowing down, and stopping in response to rider cues.  He should be able to be ridden at the walk and trot, should halt and stand quietly, and should know how to back.  In addition, teaching the green Standardbred to yield to the bit is key to submission and obedience in any discipline.  Standardbreds are raced with an overcheck which holds the horse's neck in an upright, somewhat hollowed position.  This encourages the horse to maintain his racing gait while making it harder for him to break into a gallop.  This head carriage may take some time to overcome, as this upright position may have become a "comfort zone" for your horse.  It is easiest to initiate yielding to the bit at the halt or even on the ground.  I like to lightly see-saw the bit back and forth in the horse's mouth, rewarding even the slightest amount that the horse gives to the bit.  I also teach the horse to give laterally by gently tugging on one rein at the halt until the horse bends his neck around to touch my foot or stirrup with his muzzle.  Be sure to work both sides.  There are also methods to encourage yielding to the bit through side reins and other training aids.  Whatever methods you use, be consistent and forgiving.    

Comfort Is Key

The green Standardbred under saddle is likely to be forward moving, bouncy, and uncollected in the initial stages of his western pleasure training.  Because of this, it is often easier to start them in English tack, whether a dressage, hunt seat, or cut-back saddle.  In any case, the rider should select a saddle that they are comfortable riding the horse in, and one that allows the rider to maintain a balanced, correct, and effective riding position no matter what awkward efforts your green Standardbred may throw your way.  An effective riding position means that, at the halt, your heels should be aligned with the center of your hip and with your ear.  Your elbows should follow a natural bend which allows your forearms to align with the bit when your horse's head is in a neutral position.  Your stirrups should be short enough to allow some heel flexion and to allow you to post to the trot without losing your balance or relying on your hands for balance.

Snaffle First

One of the hallmarks of a finished western horse is the ability to work in a curb bit with very light contact, guided with just one hand on the reins.  This is achieved only through hours of slow, meticulous training and a solid foundation.  This foundation is achieved by starting the horse in a simple snaffle bit or even a bosal or hackamore.  DO NOT BE IN A HURRY TO TRANSITION THE HORSE TO A CURB BIT OR TO RIDE WITH ONE HAND!  Rushing this step will make it difficult to teach the horse proper self-carriage, softness, and collection.  Use the mildest snaffle that the horse will consistently respond to.  As a racehorse, your Standardbred was encouraged to take hold of the bit and drive down to the finish line.  As a result, you will initially need more rein contact than if you were starting with a previously unbroken horse.  Having some contact with the reins will allow you to administer rein cues more quickly, smoothly, and subtly than if you first have to reel in a foot of loose, flopping rein.

Half-Halts & Collection

Now that you and your Standardbred are outfitted with correct and comfortable tack and have mastered basic riding position and cues, it's time to start refining your western pleasure performance.  During your day to day riding, work on slowing your horse's tempo and shortening his stride at the walk and trot.  You want your horse to be collected and stepping under himself, but unlike in hunt seat, dressage, and saddle seat pleasure classes, he should not track up or overstep his front feet with his hind feet.  Initially, his jog will probably resemble a collected trot more than a western jog, but over time, he will learn to soften his steps and relax into a jog.  Use your voice, seat, leg, and hands to perform a half-halt to slow your horse.  When my horse is jogging faster than I'd like, I use the command "Easy" (pronouced Eeeee Zee with the emphasis on the first syllable) when I ask for a half-halt.  On the second syllable, I squeeze the reins, resist his motion slightly with the seat, and use just a bit of leg to keep him moving into my hands.  Eventually, he will learn to associate the vocal cue with the half-halt, and your other aids can become more subtle or even non-existent.  When you need just a little slow-down, you can resist his rhythm with your seat ever so slightly to encourage a slower tempo,  You can also use frequent but methodical transitions and changes of direction to rate his speed, slow his tempo, and encourage relaxation and focus while keeping his balance centered over his haunches.  For the horse that just doesn't seem to grasp shortening his stride, 3-5 trotting poles placed just a few inches tighter than his usual trot stride can help him learn to shorten up.  Over time, the distances can be further shortened until you have achieved a more acceptable jog.

As your horse tries to figure out what you are asking for and how to move his body at the jog, he may have a tendency to get a little disjointed and fall into an ambling, half-walk/half-trot gait.  Calmly add a bit more leg and a little less hand to correct him back into a slow 2-beat trot and then repeat your efforts with the half-halt.  Being overly harsh and kicking or spurring him will only destroy his relaxation and willingness to try to go slow. Some horses have more aptitude than others, but be sure to recognize and reward whatever honest effort he gives you.  The same basic premises apply to the lope, but in depth discussion is beyond the scope of this article and will be addressed at a later date.    

Repetition & Relaxation

A winning western pleasure performance should look relaxed and effortless.  This is the result of hours of practice and repetition, as well as preparing the horse for the sights and sounds he will encounter in a horse show environment.  I like to cross-train my Standardbreds in a variety of disciplines to prevent boredom and sourness, and also to make them well-rounded and adaptable.  If your horse is sour or tense and nervous, he will not be able to give you his best performance.  Though horses will be horses, my goal is to get my horse used to as many unusual sights and sounds as I can and bring him to believe that horse shows are boring and nothing to get excited about.  Since I show primarily in judged events that focus on obedience and harmony, I don't do any speed events, games, or other events likely to get him riled up until I'm sure he has a very solid foundation of showing and has proven that he can keep his wits about him in most circumstances.    

Gimmicks and Short Cuts

Western pleasure has gained an untoward reputation in some circles relating to artificial head sets, stilted gaits, and two-tracking horses.  You may hear some people swear by equipment and techniques like tie downs, hock hobbles, or weighted bits.  You may see 4 beat lopes, riders popping their horses' mouths to "correct" them every time the judge isn't looking, horses traveling with their haunches canted to the inside to keep them slow, or horses being made to hold their head down by their knees.  I don't practice these techniques; I believe that there is no substitute for steady, methodical training and time, and that a true pleasure horse is one that enjoys his job and is a pleasure to ride, no matter what the breed or discipline.        

Look the Part   
While you don't need a blinged out show saddle and trendy custom outfit to compete in the western pleasure pen at a typical open show with your Standardbred, you want to give the impression that you and your horse belong.  You should be at least as well turned-out as the average competitor at the shows you compete at.  Your presentation gives the judge their first impression of your horse-rider team, shows your level of respect and understanding for the discipline(s) in which you are competing, and gives the judge their first clue as to whether you are an imposter or true contender.

For your horse, a good working outfit is acceptable for most levels of western showing.  A leather saddle is preferable to a synthetic one for giving the impression that you are a serious western competitor.  Whether plain or ornate, your saddle, bridle, and cinch should be clean and well-fitting.  An underpad with a woven wool or cotton/acrylic saddle blanket is considered correct for the show ring.  Most everyday work pads work fine as underpads so long as the saddle blanket you use is large enough to completely cover them.  Suitable basic saddle blankets can be purchased for less than $20 new so there is no excuse for showing with a gaudy fringed Navajo rug hanging askew under your saddle.

For yourself, if you are not familiar with the ever-changing world of western show fashion, it is best to err on the conservative side.  Western pleasure is judged on smoothness and the ability to give a pleasurable ride, so fringed shirts should be avoided as their movement will make your horse appear bouncy.  Likewise, it is preferable to avoid busy and gaudy shirts sold by so-called western wear stores; most are meant to be worn to honky-tonks and country western bars rather than the show ring.  You really can't go wrong with a solid colored button-down shirt and contrasting handkerchief tied around your neck.  Clean, starched jeans or dress pants are acceptable with or without fringed chaps.  Paddock shoes or cowboy boots are appropriate; your pants should be worn outside your boots, NOT tucked into them.  Tie it together with a coordinating western belt and belt buckle.  Though they lack the traditional western look of a cowboy hat, riding helmets are acceptable if you do not have a cowboy hat or simply prefer to err on the side of safety; one or the other should be on your head when you enter the show pen.  Before your first show, check the overall impression that you and your horse make by having a friend photograph or video tape you and your horse during a practice ride, fully outfitted in your show ensemble.

In the Show Ring

There are a few subtleties about showing western pleasure that are different than flat classes in other disciplines.  Technically, only horses 5 years of age and under should be shown two-handed in a snaffle bit or bosal.  At open shows, this rule isn't generally enforced unless the classes are divided by age of horse into Junior (5 year olds and under) and Senior (6 year olds and over) Western Pleasure.  Given that most Standardbreds won't begin their riding training until much later than a western pleasure futurity prospect, I feel that most judges would be understanding of making an exception for a green older Standardbred, though you may have to explain yourself.  It is certainly better than overbitting and overfacing your horse.  Besides bitting, another difference between western pleasure and English flat classes is that circling to avoid traffic is generally frowned upon.  Passing on the inside of a slower horse is acceptable, though it is preferable to minimize this as much as possible.  Use the corners of the ring to your advantage to maintain space between yourself and the other horses.  If you are gaining on a slower horse in front of you, try going deeper into the corner to buy yourself a little space.  If you just finished passing a slower horse and the announcer then asks the class to reverse, take your time changing direction to put more distance between yourself and that horse.  Before you even enter the ring, try to gauge which horses are likely to be slower than yours, and don't tailgate them through the in-gate.  Also, be prepared to back at some point during the class.  In 95% of western pleasure classes, you will be asked to back, either on the rail or in the line-up.  Have your reins short enough to cue smoothly for the back in the line-up if the judge hasn't already called for the back on the rail.

It is my hope that these hints will help you venture successfully into the western pleasure show pen with your Standardbred.  Good luck and have fun!

About the Author

Long-time Standardbred owner and amateur trainer Laura Harbour has trained and ridden her Standardbreds Veruca Salt and Heavymetalthunder to multiple Standardbred National and World Championships in a variety of disciplines, including western pleasure, and competes regularly (and successfully) against Quarter horses and other traditional western horse breeds at open shows in western pleasure, horsemanship, trail, and other western disciplines.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Life Hacks for the Horse Lover

Whatever you call them:  tops, secrets, simple tricks, life hacks, there are a multitude of little ways horse owners have of saving time and money.  These are a few of my favorites.  Use them for your favorite Standardbred, or horse of any breed! 

1.  Make any cross-tie or trailer tie a breakaway tie by tying a loop of baling twine to the tie ring, and snapping your cross-tie or trailer tie to that.  It will break automatically under pressure, leaving the tie attached to the horse's halter for easy catching, it's safer for the horse than non-breakaway or person-activated ties, and it's free! 

2.  Replace the broken breakaway crown piece on your leather halter or breakaway halter by cutting up old worn-out stirrup leathers and punching holes on each end.

3.  Reduce the workload of your trough heater, save money, and reduce ice build-up in your water troughs over the winter with insulation.  Wrap foil-bubble-foil insulation around the sides of the water trough and tape it in place.  Scraps of plywood and 2 x 4s can be fashioned into a "lid" for the top of the trough.  You want it to cover about half to two-thirds of the top of the trough, leaving a section open for the horses to drink from.  Attach more foil-bubble-foil or foam insulation to the underside of the plywood for a thermos-like effect.  A clay brick can also be heated and dropped into troughs for electricity-free warming (not recommended for plastic troughs).   

4.  Reduce snow from balling up in your horse's hooves in the winter by applying vegetable shortening or cooking spray to their soles.  Though snow and ice balls may still form, they will fall out faster and easier.

5.  Keep an electric tea kettle or coffee pot in the barn to warm water for making warm mashes and thawing frozen water buckets in the winter.

6.  Use feed bags to feed your horses in the pasture instead of buckets.  Everyone gets their allotted portion of grain and supplements with no waste, and bullies can't steal more than their share.  Colored duct tape can be used to color code or label the feed bags by horse, and they can be filled in advance and hung on stall fronts to save you time. 

7.  Before you discard a worn-out piece of tack or equipment, save any of the usable hardware from it, such as buckles, loops, straps, Velcro, and snaps.  It may save you a couple bucks and/or a trip to the tack shop to repair an item in the future.

8.  Old horse blankets or saddle pads can be repurposed as pet beds or equipment covers.  An old horse blanket or cooler is about the right size to make a handy dust cover for your lawnmower.

9.  A 3" quick link fastener and 1" bolt snap can replace the broken hardware on your nylon stall guard to extend its life. 

10.  An old metal tube gate makes a great rack for neatly hanging saddle pads or horse blankets. 

11.  Empty cat food or tuna cans can make great bridle racks.  Just screw them onto a piece of wood and attach it to the wall.  Be sure to wash them thoroughly before using them!

12.  A 2-3 foot section of landscape timber (or other rounded pole), a screw eye, and a screw-in hook make a quick and easy fold-down saddle rack for your barn aisle. 

13.  Resurrect a worn-out fly mask by sewing a strip of polar fleece over the worn out fleece edging.  The polar fleece will provide padding and the raw edges won't fray. 

14.  Diapers make a handy and absorbent hoof pack for abscesses or hoof wounds.  Wrap the diaper around the hoof using the side tabs for a snug fit, cover with self-adhesive first-aid wrap (Vetwrap), and cover well with duct tape.  Maxi pads also make absorbent wound dressings that can be stuck onto an outer bandage wrapping/cover.   

15.  Empty plastic peanut butter jars make great containers for a variety of items around the barn such as horse treats or first aid items like cotton balls or hypodermic needles.  They're shatterproof, water-tight, and their contents can be easily seen. 

16.  Old tube socks work great for cleaning and oiling tack.  Don a latex glove, then slip your hand inside the sock to apply tack cleaner and oil while keeping your hand clean and dry.  Tube socks can also be used as tail bags.    

17.  Bits and metal stirrups can be washed in the top rack of your dishwasher.  Your spouse would probably prefer that you wash them separately from the forks and dinner plates.

18.  A large memory foam bath mat makes a cushy orthopedic under-pad to slip under your English saddle pad.   

19.  Save money by stocking up on next year's supplies during end of season clearance sales.  For example, buy next season's fly masks and fly spray in the fall so that you're ready the following summer.

20.  Take good care of your tack and equipment.  It will last longer, look nicer, and be less likely to break. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

What Is It About Standardbreds?

There's something about Standardbreds.  Their fans will tell you about the something special within them - their heart, their work ethic, their indomitable spirit. To their detractors, there's something about Standardbreds that sometimes causes people to betray common courtesy and loosen their tongues, to make those detractors feel obliged to say some rather blunt and brazen things.

Back in the heyday of Veruca Salt's (Legs') show career, I initially had no compunctions about revealing her Standardbred heritage.  I eventually tired of the often negative responses ranging from subtly irritating to downright insulting.  "She doesn't look like a Standardbred."  "Are you sure she's a Standardbred?"  "But she canters."  "But she jumps."  "But she jogs and lopes."  "But she's pretty."  "She must be the exception because there can't be any other Standardbreds that can do what she does."  "You got really lucky to find one so atypical of her breed."  She got her share of compliments, certainly, but it's the insults that tend to stick with you.

A specific example that stuck with me was when I was at a cookout a few years ago where the host introduced me to some friends of his who owned a very small Thoroughbred breeding operation.  It started innocently enough; most non-horse people presume that all people involved with horses are basically the same, and I know there was no malice intended in the introduction.  Once introduced, I explained that I rode and showed ex-racehorses, but not their kind of ex-racehorse - mine were ex-harness racers.
Them - (blank stare.) 
Me - "I have Standardbreds; they used to harness race and I retrain them to ride and show." 
Them - (sounding incredulous) "What kind of riding?"  
Me - (handing them my cell phone)  "Anything and everything.  Here are some pictures of my mare who could do it all - English, western, flying lead changes, jumping, trail, mounted games, leadline with my friend's toddler  She was even chosen to do a demonstration at the World Equestrian Games."
Them (flipping through pictures) - "Huh."  (muttering sarcastically under breath but just loud enough for me to hear) "That's really making a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

As Legs' show career advanced, I slowly tired of having to defend my choice to exhibit a Standardbred in the show ring.  I wanted to start bringing along another show horse, and I owned a Quarter Horse for a while, in an effort to go more mainstream.  I love Quarter Horses, and I appreciate the individual merits that they and every other breed of horse and pony have to offer, but ultimately my heart of hearts belong to the Standardbred.  After all, it is through the chance crossing of paths with my first horse, Legs, that little brown mare who gave me opportunities beyond even my far-fetched imagination, that taught me that dreams really can come true.  Thankfully, my skin has toughened over the years and I have happily returned to the breed that first captured my heart.  

Saxon has certainly not been immune to the blunt and brazen comments, either.  We've encountered a gambit of comments just like those Legs garnered and a few rather memorable incidents of his own.

He is a tall, muscular, nicely proportioned chestnut horse who is happy to adapt to any tack - hunt seat, western, dressage, driving.  Accordingly, he makes a rather good chameleon.  He is often mistaken for many other breeds; nobody has ever guessed Standardbred on the first try.  Some type of Warmblood is the most common guess, followed by Thoroughbred, Appendix, Quarter Horse, and even Draft Cross.

One time that I unwittingly fooled someone into thinking Saxon was a Thoroughbred.  It was an especially cold and windy fall day with lots of horse-eating things around the arena; Saxon had replaced his usual calm, nonchalant persona with a high-headed rather fiery version.  One of the guys helping with the show ( and wearing a Race Canada jacket) saw me with Saxon and said, "What is he?  He's GORGEOUS!"  I replied, "Oh, he's an ex-racehorse."  I didn't offer further explanation, as Saxon's freezebrand was in plain sight.  The guy then asked, "What's his breeding?"  I replied, "He's by Real Artist and out of an Australian-bred mare."  He nodded, so I assumed he knew a little something about Standardbred bloodlines.  I found out my assumption was incorrect when the guy handed me a statuette of a Thoroughbred racehorse with jockey as a prize for one of the classes.  "I thought it was fitting that he should get the Thoroughbred statue." he said.     
One of the more memorable incidents of breed slurring that stands out in my mind was a lady who was visiting my property.  (She happened to own an unrideable Thoroughbred for whatever that's worth.) 
Me - (bathing Saxon at washrack)
Her - "So my friend tells me one of your horses is a Standarbred."
Me - "Actually, both my horses are.  The little dark bay mare out there (pointing to pasture), and this guy right here."
Her - (takes a surprised step back and reevaluates Saxon).  Oh, right...  I see it now.  They call them 'jugheads' don't they?"
Me "Hmmmpf."

Another one was at a horse show with some folks who were talking to me by my trailer where Saxon was tied.  They'd seen Legs show back in her heyday and had just watched Saxon compete successfully in several hunt seat and western classes.
Them - "So what breed is your new horse?"
Me - "He's a Standardbred, too, just like my old horse."
Them - (takes a surprised step back and reevaluates Saxon).  "Oh...  Now I see the head."
Me - (my unvoiced thoughts - "Really?  Because I'm pretty sure you thought he was a fancy Warmblood or Appendix, and you sure didn't 'see the head' when you didn't know he was STB.")   

At another show, as I was entering the show ring, an onlooker said, "If that's not a Thoroughbred, I'll eat my hat."  I replied, "I hope you're hungry, because he's not!"  As I was trotting in, I heard her query to her companion, "Quarter horse?"  She figured it out by the end of the class; it was a driving class, after all, and I'd done a lazy job on his freezebrand since I knew the judge knew about his Standardbred heritage.  The onlooker was wholly positive about his versatility, though, and if she had any negative perceptions about his breed she did not voice them.    

I've had some really interesting reactions from horse show judges, as well.  I compete almost exclusively at open shows, and I generally try to cover up his freeze brand for the show ring.  Mind you, I have no problem telling people that he's a Standardbred, but I would rather he be judged and placed beforehand, on his own merits, before any breed pre-conceptions are introduced.  Sometimes, judges do ask, though, especially in halter classes where they're trying to decide what breed standard to judge him against.  Generally, they are pretty quick and smooth to cover up their surprise, though it does amuse me a little sometimes.  Here are some of their reactions when I answer the question, "What breed is he?"

"Oh.  Well, he's put together really smooth for a Standarbred.  They're usually so angular."
"Oh.  Is he full Standardbred?"
"The chestnut ones are pretty rare, aren't they?"
 Or often, it's simply "Oh.  Huh."

I might add that in all of these instances, he placed well or even won, so I give these judges full credit for judging without breed bias.  I would also like to add that there are several judges we show under locally who are well aware of what breed he is and continue to offer him praise and place him very highly.  :-)

By far my favorite exchange was with a long-time local competitor.  She's seen him show English, western, in hand, and driving.  She has seen Legs show, too, back in the day.  She, herself, has shown Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, and some very fancy Welsh ponies.  She finally asked me one day what Saxon was.
Me - "He's a Standardbred."
Her - "Well he's a very nice horse for any breed.  I don't believe in 'good' breeds or 'bad' breeds.  I only believe in useful horses or non-useful horses.  And that (pointing at Saxon), is a VERY useful horse."
Me - (beaming) "Thanks!"

I think that her statement encompasses the best philosophy of all regarding horses.  We as a horse community need to get rid of slurs like "jughead" and misconceptions about what breeds, Standardbred or otherwise, can and cannot do.  Instead of prejudging a horse on what we think its breed can and cannot do, we should instead evaluate each horse on its individual merits.  And, as horse owners, we should work hard to make every horse in our lives healthy, loved, and, of course, useful.  And if you just can't get yourself to adopt this philosophy, please, for heaven's sake, have some courtesy and don't insult someone's horse to their face!    

Saturday, March 7, 2015

We Did It! Double National Champions!

This post is a short one, but sweet indeed.  The points were tallied, the final results tabulated, and our come from behind stretch run for the 2014 SPHO National High Point Awards hosted by the SPHO-NJ was a rousing success!  

Heavymetalthunder (Saxon) once again captured top honors at the SPHO National Awards for the 2014 show season. Saxon was National High Point Champion in the General Division, Reserve National High Point Champion in Showmanship, Pleasure Horse, Hunter, Equitation, and Versatility. He was the National Champion High Point Senior Horse, and the overall 2014 National Grand Champion High Point Standardbred! With this win at age 5, Saxon backs up the overall National High Point Rookie, Green Horse, and Overall High Point Standardbred titles he won during his first year under saddle in 2012. Go Saxon! 

Saxon began his under saddle training at the age of 3. Originally bred as a pacer, he currently shows in halter, showmanship, hunt seat, western, driving, trail, contest, and games classes at the walk, jog/trot, and lope/canter. Saxon has recently started schooling over fences and hopes to add jumping, dressage, and ranch horse to his repertoire very soon. Standardbreds really can do it all if you give them a chance!  But that's not all.  We have some more big news brewing, so stay tuned!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Doors and Windows

There's a saying that when a door closes, a window is opened.  My quest for accomplishment and achievement with my Standardbreds has taken me in many doors and through many windows along the way.  

About a week ago, I mailed in my last set of show results for the 2014 SPHO national year end awards.  Since 2011, this awards series has been graciously hosted by the SPHO of New Jersey, as a parallel series to their residency restricted New Jersey state awards program.  Prior to that, their club allowed residents of all states without their own state SPHO program to participate in their NJ state awards.  They've held nothing back with their awards programs - offering a superior selection of categories, awards, ribbons, and an awards banquet that is second to none.  The NJ state awards will carry on, but the club has elected to replace the parallel national awards program in favor of regional awards restricted to residents of NJ, NY, PA, DE, MD, VA, and WV so, as I reside one state too far to the west (KY), this is truly the final set of points I will be send in and perhaps my last opportunity for year-end Standardbred achievement.

To be honest, 2014 didn't afford much of a show season for me.  With school, graduation, boards, my own physical limitations (bum leg) and starting over with an entirely new (and unprepped) autocross car I faced a delayed and limited horse show season.  I showed Saxon some in June before my decision to aim for racing my Celica at autocross nationals prevailed over my horse show ambitions for the year.  This choice was fueled by several factors - Justin wanted to autocross the Miata at Nats, focusing on autocross vs. riding would give my leg additional time to heal, and with some prompting GSL was shaping up to be a diverse and interesting class at nationals.  Under the circumstances, I was quite willing to write this off as a "rebuilding year," believing that I would have more time to devote to achieving things with my Saxon in the future when my circumstances were more favorable.  Enter the email of September 15 announcing the retiring of the national awards program.  Looking at my points to date and making a few calculations, and with the show season ending October 31, I knew it was a long-shot, but it was my last shot, so I decided to make one last bid for National SPHO Horse of the Year.  I found and entered as many shows in October as Saxon and I could muster, but I won't know for some time if my eleventh hour stretch run was enough for a repeat performance at the national high point awards.  (Saxon won the national high point Overall Horse of the Year, Green Horse, and Rookie Horse titles during his 2012 rookie season).

This is not my first experience with closing doors and seeking windows in the horse show realm.  There are no guarantees in life, or in horse showing, and I have learned to take my opportunities while they are available, because you never know what will happen tomorrow.

I had been a champion of Standardbreds in all aspects of equestrian competition for years, competing with my wonderful veteran, Legs (Veruca Salt) in open shows for many years before ever encountering another Standardbred in the show ring. We took on all breeds in a wide variety of classes and disciplines - pleasure, games/contest, trail, over fences, under saddle, equitation, reining, dressage, combined training, hunters, western.  Pretty much anything I fancied doing on horseback, Legs and I tried together.  Though I have always considered her to be truly outstanding in temperament, attitude, work ethic, and ability, I was certain that she could not be the only Standardbred capable of excelling in the show ring.  Nearly a decade ago, an internet search eventually turned up the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Ohio where, attending one of their shows in the spring of 2005, I discovered the opportunity to compete against others of our breed, not just at individual shows, but to attain even greater - statewide - achievement, achievement such as I had never before had the opportunity to seek.  I had long fancied the idea of accomplishing something truly grand with Legs, to prove both to others and to myself how great I believed she was.  Alas, given our breed and our discipline(s), I had never had this opportunity.  At that time, the SPHO of OH offered a series of year-end awards open to all of their members and their Standardbreds, regardless of residency.  I was instantly entranced.

Excited at the prospect of finally achieving something great with Legs, we set about to achieve it.  Legs and I earned the SPHO of Ohio high point horse for 2005, as well as high point adult, and reserve high point in hand.  I was stoked.  Sidelined by a stifle injury for most of 2006, Legs and I were unable to show or compete for year end awards, but I still wanted to give back to the club, and volunteered for their July show and trail ride committee, helping to coordinating the venue, determine the class list, and find a judge for that event.  By 2007, the door to compete for the Ohio year end awards had already been closed to me, an emergency club vote having been held at the beginning of the year to mandate new requirements for year-end award eligibility: a number of hours dedicated to club service, and required attendance of several club meetings.  The meetings were held some 3.5 hours away from me and telecommuting was not offered, so I chose to take my cues and quietly drew back from the club and its activities.

As luck would have it, 2007 offered an even more wonderful opportunity for me and Legs - the National Standardbred Horse Show hosted by the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of New Jersey.  I set my goals and made my plans, eager to meet this new challenge and new accomplishment - making Legs a national champion.  After much planning and preparation, we made the long trek to New Jersey where we were welcomed by a supportive and enthusiastic group of Standardbred aficionados.  Though we faced many nice Standardbreds, Legs once again did not disappoint me, placing third in her halter class, and then winning every under saddle class we entered.  I felt welcomed and humbled as my fellow competitors paid me and my little mare many compliments and we were invited to attend their year-end banquet in February to receive the high point awards we'd earned at the national show.  At the banquet, I learned that the SPHO of NJ welcomed members of states who did not have a club to call their own, and offered a variety of year end high point awards, open to all members regardless of residency.  The following year, the SPHO of NJ gained an enthusiastic new member from Kentucky.  Through my involvement with the club, I gained many great friends, and had opportunities opened to me that I never would have had otherwise.  I know that the opportunities I have had to showcase Legs, my opportunity to be part of the team at the World Equestrian Games and International Equestrian Festival, the Standardbred friends I have met in many states, and my ownership of Saxon would never have happened had I not been welcomed then by the SPHO of New Jersey and its members.  In the late summer of 2008 Legs was first diagnosed with early signs of navicular syndrome, and, with collaboration from my vet and farrier to determine the most appropriate measures to balance her soundness with her show career, I felt that this was my best and perhaps last chance to attain that ultimate prize - a year end high point championship such as I had dreamed of since the inauspicious little brown mare first became mine.  Careful management proved her sound and eager to continue riding and showing, and we achieved a variety of new accomplishments in the next several years, garnering a variety of other year end awards and two other chances to reprise our role at the National Show (2009 and 2010), and the chance to demonstrate at the World Equestrian Games.

In 2011, the SPHO of NJ enacted a change in their year end award eligibility.  My initial kneejerk reaction was a flashback to the closing of the door to me for the Ohio awards in 2007, before realizing that New Jersey was retaining their original year end awards for residents of their own state, but offering a parallel set of year end awards open to residents of all states.  An understandable change, to be sure, and a thoughtful compromise to balance rewarding their state's members with their desire to reward everyone who wishes to promote Standardbreds competing in the public eye.  This 2015 change leaves me orphaned once again, as a national series will no longer be offered and Kentucky does not have an SPHO of its own (I and a few others made a fledgling effort a few years back, but were never able to get our efforts off the ground before things just sort of fizzled out).  

Though I will no longer have the opportunity to compete for year-end national Standardbred championships, I look to 2015 and subsequent seasons as a new opportunity.  To be sure, I will miss being able to use these awards as a conversation starter about the show ring capabilities of Standardbreds (When you can say things like, "My Standardbred is a national champion in _____", it opens minds to the idea that there are other Standardbreds out there showing successfully, and that yours isn't the *only* one that can canter/jump/jog/lope/succeed at halter/insert other STB myth here).  But, as this door closes, there there are new windows to seek.  The NJ group is still offering the national show, and a second Standardbred group in OH introduced a STB world show/open show concept two years ago.  School and autocross had kept me from attending these past few years, but perhaps I will be more free to pursue these now that I am free of school and my showing opportunities can be more flexible.  This year I participated rather casually with the Open Horse Show Association, and I look forward to continuing with that pursuit.  With less pressure to earn "points" geared towards specific categories, I will be more free to enter only the classes and divisions I want to ride in (bye, bye costume class and no more temptation to enter egg and spoon - balancing an egg on a spoon while trying to steer a 1200# bouncy, moving horse with one hand was never my favorite pursuit), and I will feel less pressure to enter so many classes at the horse shows I do attend - a potential for less strain and stress at individual shows as well as a savings on entry fees.  I will also feel more free to dabble in new disciplines and opportunities.  Perhaps I will join some of my friends who compete in ranch horse shows.  A Standardbred ranch horse?  Why not!  Or maybe try western dressage - some folks in my area are trying to establish an organization, and it could be fun.  Or maybe I will dabble in traditional dressage.  Saxon seems like he'd be well suited to it, and I think some formal dressage training would be good for him now that I will be less compelled to enter more standard shows.  I will always treasure the opportunities I have had, the awards I have won, and the friends that I have made via doors past, but as is my habit in a closed room, I will continue to gaze dreamily out the nearby windows.                          

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Super Size Me

Ok, ok, I admit that I've let my blogging slip again.  I was able to ride most of the summer (yipee!), and now, as the calendar turns to November, it means the end of  fun season for me and the start of the winter doldrums.  Cue the gray skies, wind, and snowflakes.  Oh, I see Mother Nature has taken care of that already...

So as described in my last post (some, uh, 4 months ago) I was in school for the past two years which definitely put a crimp on my riding and training plans during that timeframe.  More than simply being a pasture-puff, Saxon found a way to keep himself occupied - growing.  I don't know if it's the nearly unlimited Kentucky grass, the double handful of daily "pity grain" + hoof supplement, or some sort of super-hero back story-esque radioactive growth hormone he procured from some exotic source, but he. just. won't. stop. growing.

At the start of our journey, my red-headed friend was a svelte 975# (racing fit), 15.3hh 3 year old.  In a few months he will mark his sixth birthday, and he now tips the scales (or rather, swells the weight tape) to 1,250# and stands 16.1 hh.  Even at this hefty figure, there's scarcely a bit of fat on him, though, and with his compact, solid, and muscular build, he has the imposing appearance of an even larger horse.  He is often mistaken for a Warmblood, and could likely even pass for a draft cross with his solid bone and build (and giant size 2 feet).  I, on the other hand, stopped growing some years ago, and my 5'4" self replete with bum leg cannot get on him from the ground without some degree of swearing, contortions, and aggravation of an already suspect leg.

In some sort of cruel trick, the trail class at a recent show called for dismounting, ground tying, and then remounting.  I dropped my stirrups about two holes before entering the ring, but was still largely hanging off the side of him grasping the stirrup in my left hand and trying to jam my left foot into it while trying to spring off the tip of my right toe for what felt like an eternity.   I finally managed to heave back into the saddle as Saxon stood in the middle of the arena sighing with martyrdom and periodically glancing at me with a bemused expression.

It was never my intention to have such a giant horse; indeed, I always wondered why behemoths were so popular in the sport horse world, particularly in the dressage ring where it seems to me that a 10 m circle would be far easier for a 15.2 hh horse to execute than a 17.2 hh giant.  Sub-16 hh is more my style, but fate did not work that way in this case.  (But no, I am NOT interested in trading your smaller horse for my gentle red-headed giant!  This one's mine!)

Besides the need to get creative for mounting up (mounting blocks, my front porch steps, truck bumpers, fence planks, tree stumps - we've used it all), there's another downside to my incredible expando-horse...  Thank goodness we've already addressed the trailering issue; my trailer is an extra tall and with a 7'6" high roofline, and he remains comfortable in it (for now).  My tack, on the other hand...  I've already had to purchase a larger western cinch.  My old 32" model left more latigo than cinch encircling his barrel.  The new 36" is a better fit.  I have to buckle my 50" English girth on the very last hole to get it started, before I can slowly ratchet it up another hole or two to get it tight.  Ditto for the dressage girth.  My harness is on the very last hole on most of the adjustments.  But my old 76" horse blankets fit him fabulously.  Until this year.  He now measures 81".  Sheesh.  If he keeps growing at this rate I'll just have to fashion his blankets out of  army tents!  Thankfully he still eats like a 975# horse, or he'd likely have to share his space under those army tents with all of the extra hay I'd have to purchase and store!  Sometimes I think Clifford (the big red dog) or Bullwinkle (the moose) would have been more suitable barn names for him.

So as Saxon prepares to blow out his six candles next year, I have a wish for him.  Please, pretty please I wish you'd stop growing!  But no matter what his size, he's still my big loveable, Redheaded Standardbred.     

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Back From the Dead

This will be a short blog post, but a post nevertheless.  No doubt, with my 18 month long absence, most of you out in cyberspace probably figured I had either fallen victim to the zombie apocalypse, moved to a remote mountain top to live "off the grid", or finally grown out of that horse phase (this last one's for you, mom and dad!).  Well, I haven't noticed an increased appetite for brains or the ability to walk as fast as others run, I enjoy modern conveniences like electricity and plumbing too much to remain in the wilderness for long, and my enthusiasm for my horses is just as strong today as it was when I was 8 years old doodling horses in all of the school notebooks and pinning horse postcards to the bulletin board in my room.  So where have I been, you ask?

I've been in a foreign, yet familiar place - school.  I've been learning all about the myriad of things that affect your teeth and mouth in pursuit of a degree and license to practice dental hygiene.  Though ultimately successful, the journey was quite challenging.  Imagine taking a 4 year college degree and cramming it into 2 years.  Now image not only hours in the classroom every week (try about 18 hours in the classroom), but spending the remaining hours of the week (about 16 hours) in clinic or at offsite rotations.  Now take the hours you have left and spend them writing papers, doing homework, recruiting patients for clinic, completing copious quantities of clinic-related paperwork, and studying, studying, studying.  Now image that this all culminates in two very important examinations.  For the first, you are responsible for EVERYTHING you have ever learned about dentistry on a completely comprehensive 350 question written exam at the end of that two years.  Everything's fair game from nutrition, to general anatomy, to radiography, to research methods, to medical conditions, to microbiology and pharmacology.  Did I mention this test costs $400 and you have to wait for months to retake it if you don't pass the first time?  For the second, you must find a "board patient" for clinical boards, which is a $1,000 non-refundable hands-on subjective examination where you are evaluated on your ability to find, assess, and treat a patient who meets certain, very stringent criteria.  Stressful much?  YOU BET!  But I met a lot of great people along the way and had a great group of classmates, which made a huge contribution to my (our) ultimate success, the privilege of adding three little letters, RDH, after my (our) name (I'll save you the trouble of Googling - it stands for Registered Dental Hygienist!).  The next time you see your dental hygienist, be sure to thank them for their time and effort.  They worked a lot harder for the privilege of cleaning your teeth than you realize!

So yes, essentially, I HAVE been living under a rock for the past two years.  But now I am free!  (Though, with license finally in hand, the job search begins tomorrow.  Need an RDH?  Inquire within!)  Much like a horse being turned out after a long stall rest, I scarcely know what to do first with my new-found freedom.  Naturally, I want to dive head-first back into the activities that bring me enjoyment and fulfillment - riding my horses, racing my cars, and running.  Well, it's not quite that simple.  To make a drawn-out story very succinct, a horse related ankle injury I sustained  a few years led to a walking boot, which led to an altered gait, which led to hip problems that manifested several months after I'd been cleared to run again, which was ultimately diagnosed (after 4 months of PT for the WRONG INJURY because their protocol is treat first and do diagnostics later????)  as proximal hamstring tendinopathy and stress fractures of the "seat bones".  Apparently, these injuries are not uncommon in female long distance runners, though my running was hardly to marathon standards.  Running is currently not an option, and my doctor advised me to avoid riding and "bouncing around in the saddle" yet bicycling was not only permitted but encouraged.  I made it about four weeks just driving Saxon (another plus about the Standardbred - most come with driving skills installed) before aimlessly circling my yard in a jog cart wasn't cutting it anymore.  A few careful, easy test rides on Legs, and I determined that riding was not the culprit.  (But if I try to run, within two days I'm hobbling around like an old woman and struggling to tie my own shoe.)  I guess my doctor thought I must ride like a rag doll flopping around in the saddle or posting like a jackhammer...  So I am happily back to riding, though in a cursory nod to the doctor's orders, I am being more cautious by avoiding jumping, doing more driving when feasible, and being careful about my riding circumstances.  Anyhow, moral of the story - I'm back from the dead, hungry for brains, and ready to have more horse-related adventures.  Stay tuned.